One of Italy’s leading filmmakers, Matteo Garrone won the Cannes Grand Prix for his film Gomorrah in 2008, a towering look at organized crime in Italy. Rather than try to outdo the scope of that film, Reality is much smaller in scale and lighter in tone. The winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes last year, Reality tells the story of a Neapolitan fish merchant who dreams of getting on the show Big Brother. While it doesn’t explicitly moralize, the movie does show the dangers of chasing empty dreams.
I had a chance to speak with Garrone at the Oscilloscope Laboratories office when he was in New York last week. With just a little help from a translator, we talked about capitalist dreams, the fascinating story of the film’s star Aniello Arena, and whether or not we can avoid the trap of unrealistic aspirations.
About five minutes after our interview on my way to the subway, I stopped mid-stride and realized that, somehow, I totally forgot to ask him about the little robots in the movie. Look for our review of Reality tomorrow.
With Gomorrah you had a big, sprawling movie. Reality is a much more intimate character study. Was this change a conscious decision, to do a movie that was smaller in scope?
Yeah. It was a conscious decision to try to switch and go more into comedy.
But at the same time… Gomorrah was a sort of mosaic. Here, we have a character that makes a journey around the country, and a psychological journey also. And so the approach and structure was different, but they both are movies about systems: one is about the crime system, one is about the show business system. Both are movies that are focused on the victim — of the crime system and the show business system. So I would that Reality is probably more of a smaller movie about the audience rather than about television.
And that’s interesting too because it’s about how the audience wants to be part of the system that’s victimizing audiences.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Exactly.
There’s a fairy tale-like feeling that’s established right at the beginning.
Did you feel like the fairy tale or the fable was the type of story you wanted to tell?
Yes. For me, always. Also Gomorrah [is a fairy tale/fable] in a way.
Of course, the style is much more documentary-like in Gomorrah. But in Reality I declare from the beginning that it could all be unreal in a way — it’s all a dream. Or a nightmare, yes? Same thing. [laughs]
But yes, it’s one of the most difficult things was to find the balance between the dimension of the fairy tales and the real world: to be real to the story but at the same time give the audience the feeling that this could also be just dreams. It’s a fairy tale, yes. For me it’s a sort of cartoon, in a way. It’s a Pixar movie. [laughs]
We used color. It’s very colorful. And the face of the character [Luciano] was also like a cartoon.
Can you talk about Aniello’s performance? He’s so good. And this is his first film, yes?
Yes. Aniello Arena — yes, it’s his first movie.
His face is extraordinary because every time he looks at something you can see the gears in his mind turning.
Yeah, he acts with the eyes. It’s amazing. And his face reminds me a little bit of De Niro, as you see.
Yeah, there’s a quality of his face like De Niro.
He comes from theater. He’s the leading actor of a company of prisoners who are theater actors in Volterra in Tuscany. I thought he was a really perfect actor for this role. He has a working class face, and… Before acted in this movie, he stayed for 20 years in jail. He went to jail when he was 22. He went to jail when he was 22 and he got life in prison.
What did he do?
He was paid to murder gangsters in a rival clan. He was in a gang, and there was a war between rival clans. So they killed each other. But 13 years ago when he met Armando Punzo, the director of this company, his life changed completely. Now he’s completely another person. His life is changed, he lives for acting. He really found meaning in his life.
But I chose him because he was an actor, not because he was a prisoner. I saw him many times in theater and I loved him, so I said, “Let’s try to work together.” It was not easy to get the permission from the judge. At the beginning we had many problems, but we succeeded finally. He used to work during the day on the set and then in the night he’d go back to jail.
What are your own feelings about show business and reality television?
Well, I would say reality TV and Big Brother are sort of a MacGuffin, like Hitchcock. It’s not very important. The fact that it’s a movie… I’d say that it’s a movie about capitalism and fate. So you can feel that there are desires, so I would say that…
In the story of Luciano, it’s a story of a contagion. He starts to follow his dreams because he’s pushed by the family, his daughter, by the neighbors. It’s a society that is infecting our decisions. It’s a movie about illusions, about the fact that to reach his goal, his dreams, his artificial paradise he loses himself, his identity — he built a new character, sort of Pirandello style.
It becomes very clear, especially when it comes to what he does at home. It’s insane.
Yes, he starts to lose [his perspective]. It comes from a true story. It’s really a story that happened to my wife’s brother, so I knew it from the inside. Luckily the true story had a happy ending, because now he has a new fish shop in Naples called Luciano’s, so that went well. He bought the shop with the money from being the subject of the movie. [laughs]
But it was very tragic, the story. He lost himself and his identity. So when I heard about this story, I thought it was really surprising and could be universal in a way.
There’s an aspect to the film which I find fascinating. Luciano’s doing good deeds with selfish intentions. Do you feel these deeds are still good? Is there still a moral component to what he’s doing?
This is an aspect I found interesting of the true story. That he became a sort of saint to reach his goal. But, at the same time, I think that that for [the character in the film] during the journey — not just the geographic journey in my country but also the psychological journey — his problem became more existential in a way. Because for him, to go inside of the television is a means to prove to everybody that he exists in a way. It’s a sort of testimony or certification of his existence. So the problem became much more existential. To prove to himself, to his family, to everybody that he’s there, he wants to become rich and famous. Something that becomes more deep, I think.
I try to tell the story with humanity, and trying to be very close to the character of Luciano. I think Luciano is not too far from me. I mean, I live in a capitalist society, I’m weak in terms of the desires and the dreams that are projected back on us. So it’s very easy to fall into the trap and lose yourself and your identity. It’s a story… It’s like an insect that remains trapped in honey — follow his dreams and then pssh.
Do you think there’s a defense mechanism to avoid wanting impossible dreams?
No, there is none. [laughs]
There is risk and there are dreams — there is no way! It is human. So how I approach this is to be very simple and human. So there are dreams, and there are risks. [laughs]
The best way to defend yourself is to believe and have real passion in what you do. In that case, it’s something that… Otherwise it’s sort of mimetic, like a camouflaged desire. It is not some desire that comes from within you but that others impose on you.
Like expectations from society and family.
Yes. Yes, in a way. And also the problem that you become famous not because you have a special talent but because you are cast by [the [producers].
You just showed up. [laughs]
Anybody can hope to be cast. Everybody can hope to be cast in that. And it’s human that you can hope to escape. That’s one of the things I think that is really dramatic in this move: the fact that everybody hopes to escape from everyday life. They want to go to this artificial paradise.
The opening wedding scene is a kind of escape. Even Luciano’s taking on another persona to interact with Enzo [a character who won Big Brother]. It’s so fascinating.
At the beginning we show that Enzo is exactly like Luciano in a way.
He’s not an actor, he’s not a singer. He’s Enzo.
So that was interesting. But, you know, it’s a movie that we’re trying to make without intellectual concepts or denouncements, but a movie very close to the great Italian cinema of the 1960s.
Like Fellini and Visconti.
Yes. And De Sica. The desire was to make a movie that was entertainment, a fantastic journey through country full of contradiction.
That was the last question I wanted to ask. I remember reading another interview where you said that Reality had to be set in Naples because Naples is a place full of contradiction.
In Naples you see contradictions stronger than in other parts [of Italy]. It’s all over the place. [One big capitalist contradiction.] In Naples you see places that are very connected to the past, very decadent, and at the same time you have places that are almost like non-places. It’s as if they were sets — not film sets, but reality show sets.
So for example, the outlets, the commercial center, the water park; and at the same time there’s the town square where [Luciano] sells fish, the house where they live. The faces of the old people in the market are completely different from the faces you can see at the [Big Brother] audition or the commercial center. Many different realities; many different parts. And I think all these combinations of these worlds was interesting to show to make this journey.